Pop culture references are no substitute for brains in this overly frenetic, poorly written blockbuster from director Steven Spielberg.
Ahhh, the 1980s. What was for fashion the ‘decade of shame’ is, for today’s TV and film producers, a limitless goldmine of nostalgia. Red Oaks, The Americans, Deutschland 83, Black Mirror's “San Junipero” episode and, of course, Stranger Things have all benefitted from the public’s deep-seeded yearning for the MTV-era, to say nothing of the countless 80s films and TV shows now receiving reboots, sequels, prequels and ‘re-imaginings’.
King amongst them, however, is Ernest Cline’s 2011 sci-fi novel ‘Ready Player One’, now adapted for the big screen by director Steven Spielberg. It is, to put it bluntly, a nerd’s wet dream. Set in a densely overpopulated and largely dystopian future, earth’s impoverished masses spend the majority of their time jacked into the 80’s-influenced VR universe known as ‘The Oasis’. Billed as a digital paradise in which anyone can be whomever they want, look whichever way they desire and do whatever takes their fancy, the reality (both real and virtual) is far narrower. A competition drives every individual within it, all of them seeking to win both unimaginable riches and control of the Oasis itself (think Willy Wonka for the year 2046). Sparked by the death of Oasis's creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), earth’s citizens hence while away their lives seeking the clues he left behind; an all-encompassing (and literal) easter-egg hunt responsible for spawning massive Halliday Research Academies, official archives and professional egg hunters known as ‘gunters'.
One such gunter is teenager Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who escapes his daily grind in the slums by assuming the digital identity of ‘Parzival’ and racing his vintage Delorean against the masses. Together with his digital friends (none of whom Wade's ever actually met in real life) they work to secure victory over the thousands of professional gunters hired by the world's second largest corporation, IOI, and its shady CEO Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) who seeks to assume control of the Oasis and monetise its every available pixel.
Given Ready Player One is positively overflowing with pop-culture references, Spielberg should be applauded for inserting so few of his own. There’s the Delorean, of course (he produced Back To The Future), and the iconic musical cues to accompany it, but by and large his films take a back seat to other fan favourites like Alien, The Breakfast Club and - in the film’s most outstanding sequence - Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. It’s also heavy on the video game references, spanning recent entires like Overwatch through to Atari originals (and, somewhere in between, Goldeneye). At its best, in moments like the Shining sequence, Ready Player One uses these tips of the hat to advance its story in a wildly creative way, but - for the most part - they’re little more than pavlovian treats; a Where’s Wally-esque deluge of ‘did you see it? can you place it?’ without ever properly explaining what, if anything, they mean to the users of Oasis. As a result, Ready Player One's scenes often feel like cinematic fast-food: delicious at the time but lacking in substance and quickly forgotten.
Spielberg has, for most of his career, been a master of crafting movies that appeal to all ages, yet it’s hard to see this movie speaking to too many above the age of 25, notwithstanding that the majority of references appeal most directly those born between 1970 and 1990. The CGI is impressive but the action is too frenetic, its dialogue too hammy and the gamer jargon in particular feels like Spielberg was given all the parts to an IKEA wardrobe without any instructions on how to put everything together. Performance wise, Sheridan and his gunter friends do a solid job (in particular Olivia Cooke), and Mendelsohn is nothing if not committed to his performance, albeit one that oscillates heavily between serious villain and pantomime one. It’s hard not to see a great many current or imminent real-world scenarios akin to the world of The Oasis, but instead of exploring the dangers of a ‘plugged-in existence’ or the circumstances that precipitated it, Ready Player One opts to keep it light and say little more than ‘doesn’t this look cool?’ That makes for a fast-paced and entertaining blockbuster, but a far less compelling story that it might have been.